Today we're going to try something different on 13.7. The following is a wide-ranging conversation — on topics of interest to this community — between Karen Joy Fowler and Jeff VanderMeer. It took place back in April after these two noted authors appeared together on a panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.
VanderMeer's current "Southern Reach Trilogy" — comprised of the books Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance — takes readers deep into the wilds of North Florida for an encounter with something wholly not-human.
Karen Joy Fowler recently won the PEN/Faulkner award for her 2013 novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, an exploration of animal consciousness through the story of a chimpanzee living in a human family.
This conversation was provided to 13.7 by VanderMeer's publicist and was edited by NPR.
Jeff VanderMeer: Do you think most people realize how subjective scientists can be in the pursuit of science?
Karen Joy Fowler: I think they don't. I think most scientists realize it in one way or another, although I also think that they work very hard to try to remove the subjectivity. It's an issue they're constantly dealing with. I read a fascinating article in The New Yorker a few years ago about a phenomenon some scientists had noticed, which was a declining results phenomenon. You run a test and you get startling results. You're very excited. It was carefully done. There's nothing wrong with your methodology. But you repeat the test, and the results are less startling. You repeat it again, and it's not startling at all. I think the argument was just that there's a lot more noise in the system than we imagine. That gives us license to create patterns and to see findings that are very hard to actually prove.
VanderMeer: The thing about the noise resonates. My dad is a research chemist, an entomologist. I saw firsthand the subjectivity just in terms of how personalities can play a role, and, in a general way by being exposed to the world of science from that vantage, how wanting to see a result can play a large role. Perhaps we need a study of what set of characteristics and environmental conditions will produce certain results from certain scientists.
I remember thinking at first that my father seemed to be very much an A1, to A2, to B1, to B2, kind of guy. At first, I was impatient with that — why not leap instead? Then I realized it was actually that he didn't want to be one of those people who misses the step. At the same time, I'd be involved in putting together these science books and sometimes it would just be these flailing of personalities, egos just as bad as writers, I suppose. That's where I see the subjectivity of it coming from. It's just that we cannot edit out the egos, and then sometimes when there's money involved it corrupts. But that's not really science — that's propaganda. It'd be like saying religion and spirituality are the same thing.
Fowler: In the case of my own father's work, the great sin was to anthropomorphize. It just seems clear to me now that that's not a neutral, non-subjective position to take. That it actually carries its own consequences for what you see and what you're able to see. There is no inconsequential position to take.
VanderMeer: It presumes so much. I've been thinking a lot, too, about why we feel the need to have to see our own likeness or own type of intelligence in other animals in order to see the value in them. I think that's what disturbs me. No one would sit around thinking "What's the value in human beings?" I think also of course anthropomorphism gets tied up with how you deal with things in creative writing class too.
Fowler: In what way?
VanderMeer: I might be mixing up things, but trying to attribute things to animals and to landscapes, for example, in fiction. The fallacy.
Fowler: The sad, sad rain that falls.
Fowler: To sort of tie all of this together, part of the issue is that our only way of interacting with the world is through our own bodies. If we see a sad rain, it doesn't mean the rain is sad, but it means we see it. That's an easily dismissible kind of projection. But what I'm struggling to say, is that we take that rain in through our own hearts and emotions and senses and skin and all those filters have an impact.
VanderMeer: So beyond what we project onto things, there are things we don't see — weeds communicating between the cracks in the sidewalk, beetles emitting chemical signals and all the rest.
You mentioned doing an animal-related event for this book. I was going to ask you a question about how much power fiction can have. Does someone read your novel, and it's like Republicans listening to The Clash? They're entertained, perhaps in this case saddened, by the story, and that's it? Or do you see evidence that a book like this could actually change someone's mind?
Fowler: I would say instead that — and again, having just criticized other people for projecting, let's be aware that I may be doing the same thing — I see this book as having arrived on the scene at a moment when I feel a shift is happening. I don't think my book is responsible for that shift. But I think my book may be part of it. It feels to me as if the research on animal cognition has been so astonishing and moving so fast, teaching us so many things we had imagined were not the case, we are slowly beginning to respond to the new information.
As my book was coming out, the government ended chimp testing, with a handful of exceptions. Last year, there were three cases filed on behalf of chimps in New York state arguing that chimps possessed certain legal rights (though the cases were quickly dismissed). And then this whole SeaWorld thing is brewing.
VanderMeer: SeaWorld has always bothered me. Any time you take an organism that's used to traversing so many miles of ocean a day and put it in a tiny cage, it's unethical. [It's] a sign of pathology, unless there's no [other] choice for preservation of a species. But even that is giving up — it means we've given up on their habitats.
Fowler: I think, I believe, we're hitting the critical mass on SeaWorld. I'm waiting to see what the California legislature is going to do. I just feel all of these gathering forces ...
When I was doing research, I stumbled on an event that I had never heard of called the brown dog riots, which took place in Battersea, England, in about 1906. It was this peculiar flashpoint, without going into too many details, over the issue of vivisection at the medical schools, which had the medical students on one side and this huge line-up on the other side of labor, the suffragists, the Fabians, the Marxists, the socialists, all opposed to vivisection, all seeing it as a gendered issue, a class issue. On the other side, only the medical students, really, and the medical universities.
It ended ambiguously with no clear win on either side. And yet it seems to have been the last gasp of this coalition that somehow disappeared. And then the use of animals for the most trivial of reasons, like cosmetics, went unquestioned for decades and decades.
VanderMeer: Do you think that these issues being thought of in a more, for lack of a better word, progressive way impacts though how people perceive their natural environment in general and how this all ties in to the mess we're in?
Fowler: I do. In certain ways, we, many of us, stopped paying attention to the world. I have to think we would have moved on the whole climate issue in a different way if we'd been paying better attention. There are so many reasons we're not. We lead indoor lives. We're online. The economic climate makes it hard to look outside daily needs. And then there is the partisan nature of our politics, all the money lined up against us. I know you'll remember that appallingly hilarious video of Sarah Palin giving some sort of interview while turkeys were being stuffed into killing machines behind her.
VanderMeer: Yes, I do remember that. The way that some of these scenes become banal to us is what's disturbing too. I think the incident in your book where the father runs over the cat, which you leave ambiguous as to whether it actually happened or not, is telling in that regard because there are actions that happen every day outside of controlled environments or experiments that reflect a certain bizarre callousness toward the world we live in. It makes me a bit pessimistic about the limits of empathy, if that makes any sense.
Fowler: It makes perfect sense. On the limits of empathy — I just read the new book by Frans de Waal called The Bonobo and the Atheist. A lot of it was about our natural proclivity towards empathy and how many animals we find this in, and cited many studies and observations. But in the end the book concluded that there seems actually to be what they call an empathy deficit for people or creatures that you don't see as part of your own tribe. Not only do you not empathize with them, you actively dis-empathize.
VanderMeer: Dis-empathize, right. If sharks were as smart as chimpanzees — using our conventional definitions of worth — it wouldn't make a difference, in a sense. So how far do you think "personhood" should go in terms of our thinking of animals? Is there a cut-off point? Or is it simply that we need to rearrange our entire thinking about this?
Fowler: I just think that's such a hard question. At least, I think it's a hard question. I can tell you where my thinking is today. But what I'm seeing is that the more we look at animal cognition, the smarter other creatures seem to be. I'm at a point now where I eat fish. I'm sure the day is fast coming when I will learn that fish are creative puzzle solvers.
VanderMeer: I saw a study regarding trout, or some other fish, indicating more cognition than previously believed. For me, it's getting more and more difficult. I would extend it pretty far myself but, then, my personal feeling is we need such a radical wrenching away from our current points of view. That we need to de-emphasize our importance here on Earth just as Galileo did for us with regard to the larger universe.
Fowler: Yes, I agree. Everything needs to be changed. I take your point about certain scenes becoming banal but I think one big problem is not that we've been desensitized to it so much as that we've removed it from sight. I feel if people had to look at our wars or prisons, our slaughterhouses, they wouldn't be able to bear what they saw.
VanderMeer: Everything's been sanitized.
Fowler: Rendered invisible.
VanderMeer: Which is kind of ironic, really, because here we have this whole virtual world that is supposedly giving us all this intense and all-pervasive visual information. But it's not really doing that in the right way.
VanderMeer: I had another question for you, from hearing you on NPR after you won the PEN award. I think you were at the North Carolina Literary Festival, or maybe you'd recorded it before; but they asked you something about advances in science. I can't remember the exact question; but they asked you whether science will eventually solve the issue of animal consciousness and you said something along the lines of: "No, I don't think so." Does that, again, have to do with the subjectivity of science?
Fowler: Yes. What I meant was that we have our own limitations, again, that our own bodies provide a hard limit of some sort about what we can actually understand. You mentioned earlier that it's so much easier for us to empathize with certain animals. The more human-like their intelligence, the more we can recognize it as intelligence. You and I are both are very aware of attempts over the decades to imagine truly alien species and truly alien ways of thought. It's just really hard, if not impossible, to do. I think that we both try, certainly you in your most recent book, and me in my first novel, to leave the mystery. To say, there will be clues; there will be information. We'll be trying to understand. But the mystery is going to remain.
VanderMeer: I get a strong sense sometimes that we live on an alien planet just because in the past I've studied in a very amateur and vicarious way, first ants, but then also fungi and cephalopods. When you learn even just a little bit about the underpinnings, you really don't feel like you live in a place that you know very well.
Fowler: No. I love that.
VanderMeer: I treasure this feeling that we're actually living on an alien planet because we still just don't know it. One thing that frustrates me is not so much the process of scientific discovery itself, but the way it's portrayed in the mass media as "this is the next evolution" or the next advance. We finally found this thing that solves it all. It always strikes me as fairly laughable.
Fowler: We're always marching forward.
VanderMeer: Right. It gives the illusion not only that we're making progress but that everything's OK, in a sense — that we're more in control than we actually are. Everything is presented that way. First, like you said, we have evidence that's maybe skewed. But then it's further skewed when it reaches the public, which doesn't help in terms of people taking action on global warming or anything environment related. Also, all these cool gadgets we have that are really stupid technology next to even the way a plant operates ... they get in the way of seeing our environment.
Fowler: One of the most exciting, at least in terms of springing my own imagination, TED Talks that I've seen was about looking to other organisms for technologies, to try and duplicate some of the things that other creatures are able to do.
VanderMeer: Kind of in the same vein, your novel isn't science fiction but is about science and the extrapolation is about what it would be like to have a chimpanzee for a sister. Does that represent a shift? Was there a shift for you at some point, between the "speculative" and the "non-speculative"?
Fowler: No. I think I always wrote things that had a speculative element, and things that didn't. The things that initially didn't have a speculative element just didn't sell, so nobody knew I was writing them. My interest in science has remained throughout, particularly my interest in pseudoscience which is much easier to write funny books about.
VanderMeer: So that makes me wonder: Is there anything in your novel that's speculative? Since the book is also up for science fiction's Nebula Award. I've seen on social media a few people either be harumphy about that or make the case for why this actually a work of science fiction.
Fowler: I'm not on social media, so I've not really seen the conversation this time. But it's certainly a conversation that has swirled around my work at various times. I'm pretty sure I know what's being said on both sides. Honestly, I was very surprised to be on the Nebula ballot. It is science fiction, if you include fiction about science. I don't think there's a speculative element.
VanderMeer: They meant it as a compliment, but it comes off as perhaps not realizing what's going on in the real world. And, perhaps more relevant to perceptions of this entire issue, in the real, mundane world that you conjure up in your novel there are characters like Lowell, people who act on their idealism. How sympathetic are you to Lowell's actions in the book?
Fowler: I'm very sympathetic to Lowell's actions.
VanderMeer: The environmentalist Derrick Jensen — who unfortunately has his own issues in other areas — says he wakes up thinking [about] whether he should go to work or go blow up a dam. Do you think a lot of people have that impulse? I know we're getting into territory that's sensitive, because what might've been called acts of civil disobedience or protest have been reclassified since 9/11 as domestic terrorism. It seems like you can't even really talk about it.
Fowler: I can't remember if I actually read this or if I just read somebody speculating that we were on this path that even photographing certain things would now be classified as an act of terrorism.
VanderMeer: Probably photographing the conditions inside industrial chicken farms and in slaughterhouses. So how do you perceive Lowell the activist? That he is someone who becomes slightly unhinged because of pressures he's under as a result of pursuing this path?
Fowler: That's how I see him, yeah. Once you feel that lives are at stake, enormous suffering is taking place, then it's hard to walk a moderate path, to think, "I'll do this much, but I won't go further." This was certainly a large part of the anti-war debate during the 1960s and Vietnam. Given that every moment we delayed, people were being killed and napalmed, and villages were being razed, was it really reasonable to say, "this act is too extreme"?
VanderMeer: That also brings up a point about our modern world. Social media seems incredibly useful in terms of communication during, for example, civil wars and things like that — events or situations with concrete territories or communities in play. But for this particular subject — ongoing, global [issues], sometimes involving organisms that migrate from habitat to habitat across hundreds or thousands of miles — it seems like social media serves just to blow off steam. We can feel good about ourselves for clicking on a link, donating $5 to something and then not actually engaging with this issue in the real world. I think, maybe, one of your characters says something like that outright in your novel.
Fowler: There's a touching belief that if people can only be shown what's happening, they will act. I think I said as much earlier in our conversation — that the problem was the invisibility of things. You have the siege of Sarajevo, genocide in Rwanda and many people there thinking, "If we can just get the word out, someone will come and stop it." Yet, getting the word out, which feels like a kind of activism, and is a critical part of activism, doesn't necessarily go that one step further into physical activism. I suspect the impact is mixed. I think you're right that a lot of people feel, "I've contributed $5, so there's no need to really show up and demonstrate, or even change the way I eat. Or think about eating." But as I said, I feel that we're on the cusp of a change at least in the way we deal with animals. Just as we're about to completely wipe them off the face of the Earth, we're going to begin to deal with them more respectfully.
I will say, though I don't want to make a lot of this point because it plays so easily into a narrative I don't like ... that certainly there have been cases where the animal activists have not thought through what the welfare of the particular animal they're dealing with is best served by. Mistakes have been made.
VanderMeer: No, absolutely, even on a small scale, too. There are certain things that, for example, PETA does, that I think are great, and then certain things that are just ridiculous and undermine their cause. I remember they protested a bed and breakfast that offered a cat with every room, if you wanted a cat, which seems fairly benign on the list of horrible things.
The thing that was very personal to me was also personal to everybody where I live, near the Gulf Coast, when they had the oil spill. That was actually going to impact that whole coast that I know so well, that I had hiked for so many years. The whole time it was going on, the spill was in my brain. It was this swirling thing in my brain. I just couldn't sleep or anything. I kept feeling the weight and pressure of all that oil spilling out, and at the time we had no end date. No moment when it would for sure stop. At times it felt as if the oil would keep spilling out forever and we would have to live with that, live within that nightmare. Sometimes I feel that Area X in the novel came out of my subconscious after that as a reaction to it. If that makes sense.
Fowler: That makes perfect sense.
VanderMeer: A horrible feeling.
Fowler: Yet, apparently not, for the country at large, a learning moment.
VanderMeer: No, because then you learn more about the other oil rigs in those areas and the fact that most of them are seeping a bit of oil to some degree. Even if it's trace elements, it all adds up. So my own personal commitment has been, what can I do? What I can do is I can contribute money. I can write about it. I can speak publicly for the North Florida area that I know. That's something that I can do finally as somebody who's been there long enough to feel like that they know the area and has ties to it.
Fowler: A lot of the most effective work is being done exactly out of that sense of place. Pete Seeger died fairly recently. As a result, I was noticing again the work he did on the Hudson River.
VanderMeer: You can make a difference, I think. Peter Matthiessen — there was an interview that they posted after he died recently. He said that many of the environmental things that he tried to get done in wildlife refuges, a lot of that got reversed. But they at least created these pockets of resistance for a time. They gave areas a respite, more or less.
Fowler: That's a hard thing to rejoice in, isn't it?
VanderMeer: It's a hard thing to rejoice in, but it still made a difference, for years or decades. And every enclave that survives for a time has immeasurable benefits on others, ephemeral though it might be.
Fowler: This is my personal point of despair. It seems to me that the world is just tipped towards evil in some ways. This is a perfect example of it. In order to protect an area, you have to be vigilant over the centuries. In order to destroy an area, it just takes a moment.
VanderMeer: A lot of the things that we see as regenerative or whatever, building cities, is actually incredibly destructive to the environment, too. But it's going to take a true catastrophe of some sort to change our perspective.
Fowler: We're heading towards one.
VanderMeer: Yes, it's scary as shit.
Fowler: It is. It really is. But not scary enough for some, apparently.
VanderMeer: So ... stepping back from the brink a bit, what in particular are you hopeful about? Coming out of the experience writing the novel, the reaction to it?
Fowler: As I said, I really feel that a change is happening with regard, at least, to animals. Again, I'm very critical of scientists in many ways in the book. But this new way of thinking also is result of scientific studies and of our new understanding that we have underestimated the creatures we share the planet with at every possible turn.
VanderMeer: This is often an issue of language, is it not? How we talk about things?
Fowler: This is why your book and my book are interesting partners on this issue of theory of mind and subjectivity, and whether it is possible to look into a truly alien mind, and what you're going to see there if you try, and how communication is going to be interpreted or can be interpreted.
VanderMeer: Yes, the strange words on the wall that the expedition finds in the first novel. I think that definitely pertains. In the second novel, the agency sending in the expeditions spends a lot of time examining those words on the wall. They're very frustrated by the words because language obviously means one thing to us. But it means something completely different to whatever's in Area X. In a way, it's a trap set by Area X. It's not a conscious trap. It's just simply because of the way we create metaphors and analogies, which the agency can't get past.
The problem is, it's almost the same issue with animal consciousness, which is if you truly want to portray something that is alien or different from us, then you're never going to understand all of it. You can't see through those eyes.